PHOTOGRAPHY: APPEARANCES CAN BE MISLEADING

Best known for his career as an actor and filmmaker, Dennis Hopper (1936-2010) was also a painter and a photographer. This photograph was shot in 1961 in West Hollywood.

What are the main features of this image and what is the message to the viewer?

Dennis Hopper composes this black and white photo primarily through an alternate horizontal structure of dark and light. From the bottom up, the bonnet is light, the road is dark, the sky is light, the interior of the car is dark, and the sunroof is light. The rear view mirror, which is an image within an image, then makes further divisions of light and dark. Transitions are bold, with the exception of the shading of the windshield. The dark and lights areas thatcan be regarded as “positive and negative space” alternate towards the sunroof (which is light in the middle of a dark grey roof) and the rear-view mirror (the upper part of which is light on adark background and the lower part of which is dark on a light background).

Despite the dominance of horizontal division in the image, there are also many diagonals playing a key part in visual dynamics: the upper edge of the windshield, the electrical power lines, the perspective created by the roads, the continuity between the sunroof and the mount of the rear-view mirror, and lastly, the electric pylons, the verticality of which is deformed by the focal length of the camera. The result then is that neither the horizontal nor the vertical lines is straight; everything appears slanted.
The image forms the overarching frame that includes several windows. These are the windshield, the opening of the sunroof, the rectangle created by the rear-view mirror, and the front and back windshields of the car reflected in the rear-view mirror.

There are also shifts in scale. The inside of the car is a close-up view, the urban landscape with its details is in the distant background, and the image reflected in the mirror lies in-between.

Key in a photographer’s language is the decision to blur or sharpen. Here the image offers the same degree of sharpness nearly everywhere, meaning that there is no eye-catching priority and everything matters.

Occupied but at the same time empty, this image simultaneously offers a great deal of information and space. Multidirectional diagonal lines lead the eye towards a variety of choices, and as viewers we can choose to follow one of the two roads that disappear into the distance or stay at their intersection, where brands, billboards and human presence collide. The perspective is not about a single vantage point but rather a dual one. The eye is uneasy, it moves from one possibility to the other, without knowing where to land.
Hopper’s image is less striking for the urban landscape it offers at first glance than for its expression of a relationship between the outside and the inside. The dark strip on the windshield cuts off the vast expanse and connectedness of the sky to which the sunroof only offers limited access. Moreover, the mirror is not only included in the picture but also occupies a major space in the image, as if to bring inside a chunk of the outside. Indeed, the mirror is a window within a window, the telling of something else, of what lies behind oneself. This forward orientation of what is actually behind the viewer not only disturbs what lies before him but also challenges the idea of a singular vantage point; it suggests that there is more than what meets the eye and that the past is part of the present. This is reinforced by a mise en abyme of those mirrors and other rounded rectangular shapes that are recursively embedded into each other.

More than its ability to bring back the American culture of the sixties or the glory of a road trip film, the interesting aspect of this picture is the hidden tension behind the apparent calm. There is the tension of unresolved choice, between two roads and two road signs. Which way should we look? Which way should we go? Next, there is the tension between freedom and imprisonment: in contrast to the initial feeling of openness and space, of a movement from the confined to the open, the image offers alternate visions of shrinking spaces: roads that end up in narrow points, an immense sky that is either circumscribed by the windshield or cut off by a window that narrows into a tiny corridor pouring into the car like a funnel. There is also the confining feeling of concentric windows, the tiniest of which appears opaque. The landscape is vast but one cannot see the horizon. Finally, in spite of the impression of moving forward formed by a suggestion of the viewer sitting in a car, everything is restrained and has come to a halt.

Appearances can be misleading… As a brilliant actor who was living in the excessiveness of success and addiction, Denis Hopper renders, through his complex and contradictory subjectivity, the endless possibilities of an America in which the consumerist culture subjugates the sky.

©2014 Eleonore Pironneau / Translation by Caroline Imbert and Haru Yamada

Tous droits reservés. Aucune partie de ce document et de son contenu ne peut etre reproduite, copiée, modifiée ou adaptée sans le consentement de son auteur. Ce texte a été déposé à la SACD. © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust - www.dennishopper.com

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